Photography is an incredible hobby, but it can also be draining, difficult, and – at times – a real slog. If you’re feeling burnt out, you may need to take a break, or you might just require a bit of extra inspiration.
In this article, I share my top 15 favorite methods to gain photographic inspiration when you’re in a creative rut. Not every approach will work for every photographer, but I encourage you to read through the list and try a few techniques that appeal to you. By the time you’re done, with a little luck, you’ll be excited to head out with your camera and take photos once again.
Let’s get started!
1. Draw up a plan for your success
As with any other professional endeavor, documenting your photography goals is a great idea. In fact, just voicing and acknowledging what is in your head is the first step toward achieving success!
So think about what you want to do photographically, and draw up a list. If you’re just starting out, limit yourself to a couple of reasonable goals (though if you’re a more experienced photographer, feel free to push yourself here – really think about what you want to achieve and the kind of photos you’d like to take over the next year or two).
Maybe you want to get comfortable shooting in Manual mode, or perhaps you want to understand how to successfully use off-camera flash. Maybe you want to get better at composition, or perhaps you want to track moving subjects effectively.
But don’t just make a list and call it a day; also spend some time determining how you’ll achieve your goals. Will you read dPS articles? Check out books on photography from the library? Take several workshops? Watch some online courses? Spend an hour each day practicing with your camera?
No matter the goal, it’s easier to achieve when you have an actionable plan to help you get there. And if you want to boost your chances of following through, take this a step further by actually writing down the steps needed to achieve the results you’re after!
2. Look at work from your favorite photographers
Taking a scroll through other photographers’ portfolios can be wildly helpful when dealing with a creative rut! Platforms like Instagram, 500px, Flickr, and Facebook are bursting with amazing images, and by spending some time looking at the shots that you love, you can discover techniques and approaches to incorporate into your own shots.
Now, I’m not saying you should outright copy what others are doing. It’s about allowing yourself to learn from the works that resonate with you. So when a particular image grabs you, take a moment and ask yourself: What is it about the photograph that’s so appealing? Is it the composition, the color grading, the subject?
And once you’ve done your deep dive, don’t just close the tab and move on with your day. Take those elements that you found so inspiring and experiment with them during your next shoot!
3. Read about photography’s history
Think history is a snore-fest? Think again! Diving into the history of photography is actually wildly exciting. From the earliest daguerreotypes to the advent of digital photography, each era came with a novel way of capturing the world, and understanding this evolution can spark your imagination and give you a fresh perspective on what’s possible and what photography is all about.
You might discover, for instance, that techniques or styles you consider groundbreaking today were actually pioneered decades ago. Ever heard of “Pictorialism”? This early 20th-century movement focused on elevating photography to an art form by playing with soft focus and painterly lighting – techniques that are making a comeback in some modern styles.
Even more fascinating is how technological constraints shaped artistic expression. Back in the days of film, photographers had to be incredibly thoughtful about each shot, as film was costly and limited. This “limitation” led to some of the most iconic images we know today. Imagine bringing that level of consideration into your work now.
And what about the social and cultural impact? Photography has been a crucial tool for documentation, activism, and storytelling. Recognizing this wider context can deepen your understanding of why you shoot and what you aim to convey, influencing your work in powerful ways.
4. Work on personal projects
While it’s great to be busy and earn a living doing what you love, it can also start to drain your creative spirit. So if you’re a professional shooter, don’t just work on your money-making projects; give yourself permission to take on a passion project (i.e., a personal project) or two.
See this project as a way for you to fall back in love with photography without any pressure or expectations. For instance, you might:
- Photograph sunrises
- Create a portfolio of abstract nature scenes
- Capture your local sports team
- Document your favorite forest
Note that your personal project can last for a few weeks, or it can take years. Either is fine, but do make sure the topic is near and dear to your heart; otherwise, you may find yourself getting very bored very quickly, which is the opposite of what you want.
Also, you don’t need to be a professional photographer to try out this strategy for photographic inspiration. Even if you’re a hobbyist, pursuing a dedicated project can be a great way to regain your motivation.
One more thing: Once you pick a project, make sure you give it the time it deserves (even if you’re busy with other work). If you put in real effort, you’re more likely to get real rewards!
5. Check out classic photo books
Before the internet, there were photo books. These timeless compilations showcase the work of masters whose contributions have stood the test of time. Names like Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Minor White might not mean much to you now, but crack open one of their books, and you’re in for an enlightening experience.
What sets these classics apart? It’s not just the age of the photographs; it’s the enduring relevance of their compositions, techniques, and subjects. Studying these works offers you a chance to break out of the current trends and standards, challenging you to think differently about your own shots.
For instance, have you ever noticed how modern photography often leans heavily on vivid colors? Some of the greats, like Ansel Adams, worked primarily in black and white. Exploring their grayscale worlds can open your eyes to the nuances of light and shadow, giving you a whole new toolkit for your own work.
And don’t just skim through these books. Really look at each photograph. Think about the choices the photographer made. How did they use light? What’s in focus, and why? This deeper engagement can be a source of invaluable inspiration.
So next time you’re in a creative rut, take a detour to your local bookstore or library and head to the photography section. You’ll find a world of inspiration that predates hashtags and filters!
6. Go shoot without an agenda
Working with a purpose isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you have certain types of images in mind, it’s easy to develop expectations, and these can lead to pressure, stress, and frustration.
That’s why I highly recommend spending some time photographing without an agenda. Just pick up a camera – whether it’s a DSLR, mirrorless model, or even your smartphone – and photograph anything. It can be the interior of your home, your backyard, your neighborhood, or the nearest city. Just pick something convenient and do some shooting.
You don’t even need to put much thought into it. Sometimes, it’s just the act of pressing the shutter that can provide the right amount of stress release. And if it helps, feel free to delete the images at the end. The whole point is to just enjoy the act of photography without the need to create a perfect frame.
7. Photograph with a tripod
For many photographers, tripods are an annoyance – often relegated to the back of the closet or never purchased in the first place. But hear me out, because this unassuming piece of equipment can be a great way to revitalize your creative energy.
You see, when you use a tripod, you’re forced to slow down and pay attention to details that you might otherwise overlook in the quest for that next stunning shot. Setting up a tripod is slow, deliberate work – which means you have the time to adjust every parameter carefully, to think about the best focal length, to fine-tune your composition. In a way, working with a tripod gives you the chance to reconnect with the very act of photographing.
Even if you like to do fast-paced photography – on the streets or of wildlife, for instance – a tripod can help direct your focus. You’ll pay more attention to timing, to the movement of your subjects, to the changing light conditions.
One note, however: Make sure you use a tripod that fits your needs. If you’re into travel photography, you might go for something lightweight yet sturdy. If you shoot in rugged conditions, you’ll want a tripod that can stand its ground. While tripods can be perfect for regaining inspiration, it’s important that you don’t needlessly restrict yourself by picking the wrong model.
8. Do something creative (that’s not photography)
Photographic inspiration can be found in a variety of ways – and sometimes, the best inspiration comes from non-photographic activities. That’s why I encourage you to try something that’s creative, but that’s not artistic.
For instance, you might cook a meal from scratch, do some knitting, enjoy gardening in your backyard, write a story, do some journaling, or even just go for a walk outside and study the different leaf patterns you see.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with working on an alternative artistic pursuit, such as painting or drawing (and this can be an effective way to gain new inspiration, too). But if you’re feeling burnt out, distancing yourself from all things artistic might be a good idea.
Whatever you choose, let it flow without structure or planning. Use it as a means to release the creative energy building up inside. Be kind to yourself, and just give yourself some time to take a break from photography; the inspiration will return in time.
9. Try a different photography genre
If you’ve been spending months – or years – capturing the same subject over and over again, why not jump ship? I don’t mean that you should make a permanent change, of course, but a little genre-hopping can do wonders for your creativity. If you’re a die-hard portrait photographer, consider shooting landscapes or architecture for a while. If street photography is your jam, try some macro or cityscapes.
Switching genres is often like learning a new language. Initially, it feels uncomfortable, but as you get the hang of it, you start to see patterns and gain new insights into how language works. For instance, if you move from portraits to landscapes, you may begin to appreciate the subtleties of natural light in a new way. If you transition from street scenes to macro shots, you may find yourself engrossed in the minute details of the world.
And here’s the kicker: The skills and insights you pick up in one genre can often be transferred back to your primary area of interest. Those natural lighting techniques might inspire a unique headshot in your next portrait session. Or the way you frame a cityscape could add a new layer to your street photography.
So don’t confine yourself to a single box. Break free, try something new, and see if you can’t reignite that passion!
10. Complete a self-challenge
This approach is similar to the personal project technique I shared above, except it’s a lot more constrained. The idea is to set yourself specific rules, and then use them to direct your shooting. You can always invent your own self-challenge, though here are a few popular ones:
- Take a self-portrait every day
- Capture a set of photos that convey the essence of each week (for a whole year)
- Photograph a single color for a week
- Photograph your daily meals
- Take one shot a day for a month
- Capture every sunrise and sunset for a month
Whatever self-challenge you choose, document and work on it. Perhaps even join or start a group online where others can participate with you. (As I discuss below, working with other photographers can motivate you further and help keep the inspiration alive!)
One tip: If you start a self-challenge and you struggle from the get-go, that might be a sign you should try something else. There’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself, but because challenges are nearly always tough to complete, it’s important that you genuinely like what you’re doing.
11. Spend time photographing with others
Photography can often feel like a solo journey, but it doesn’t have to be. Photo walks and photography meetups are very popular, and they’re a great place to talk with others who are passionate about the same kind of thing! Plus, photo walks and meetups are more than social events; they’re a great place to develop skills and find photographic inspiration. Working side by side with other photographers can offer fresh perspectives that break you out of your creative rut.
You see, there’s a unique energy that appears when photographers gather. You’ll find people who share your particular genre interests, and you’ll find people who don’t. This medley of viewpoints can be as inspiring as any world-class photo book or historic image.
And we shouldn’t forget the power of immediate feedback. Imagine taking a shot and then instantly sharing your excitement or doubts with someone who gets it, someone who speaks the nuanced language of apertures, compositions, and light. It’s the kind of conversation that can spark new ideas and help you see the world – and your craft – differently.
And if big meetups aren’t your thing? No worries. Even just having a buddy to shoot with on weekends can offer a regular dose of inspiration. You can bounce ideas off each other, critique each other’s work in real time, and collectively aim for better shots.
12. Go on a photography trip
We’ve all been there, shooting the same old cityscapes or meandering through familiar woods, feeling like we’re just recycling our past work. So why not venture far afield? A photography trip can breathe new life into your portfolio and, most importantly, your inspiration.
Suppose you’re a landscape photographer who’s been capturing forests for years. How about heading up north to capture the snowy tundra? The shift from green and brown to stunning whites and icy blues could be the jolt your creativity needs. Or maybe you’re a street photographer, routinely capturing the hustle of New York City. Consider making your way to smaller, quainter coastal towns.
You don’t have to cross oceans for this (although if you can, go for it!). Even a neighboring town, a nearby state park, or a historic site can make a difference. The key is to explore new environments that challenge you to see the world in a new light.
Of course, before you go, do some research. Get to know the area, look up potential shoot locations, and plan your days to maximize the time you spend shooting. Once you’re there, the change of scenery will likely trigger new ways to consider compositions, lighting, and subjects.
When you come back, you’ll likely find that the trip has given you not just photos, but a fresh enthusiasm for photographing locations that are closer to home.
13. Look through your photo archives
If you’ve been doing photography for a while, you’ve undoubtedly amassed a large collection of shots – but when was the last time you really dug into these files? Your photographic archive can be a goldmine of inspiration. You might stumble across a theme you started but never finished or a style you experimented with but dropped. And now that you’re feeling uninspired by your existing work, it might be the perfect time to revisit and possibly complete those incomplete stories.
Start by taking some time to systematically go through your photos, ideally going back a few years. Don’t rush. Let yourself absorb the work you’ve done and reflect on your growth and changes in style.
What should you be looking for? Perhaps an old but interesting technique or an unfinished series that could be turned into a portfolio piece. Maybe a type of photography you haven’t done in a while.
Then, when you find something inspiring, think of ways to take your old ideas to new heights. Maybe modernize them with skills you’ve acquired since then or combine old and new approaches to create something entirely different.
14. Work on your editing skills
If you’ve been stuck in a creative rut, you’ve likely thought about stepping away from photography for a bit. It makes sense: When you’re burnt out, a break can make a big difference. But you don’t have to drop photography entirely. Instead, you can focus on skills that don’t require a camera, such as editing.
Editing is far more than a final coat of paint; it’s where your images come alive and take form. And by learning new editing techniques, you may find yourself inspired by all of the photographic possibilities – the way you can combine editing and photography to create breathtaking results.
Even if you’re well-versed in the basics – cropping, adjusting exposure and color – you might be missing out on some of the most effective professional techniques. Color grading, blending modes, masking, dodging and burning; they’re all advanced approaches and tools that really can revolutionize your portfolio.
Developing your editing skills might seem difficult, but a plethora of online tutorials can guide you through these processes. YouTube is full of skilled editors sharing their favorite tricks. And you can find courses that go more in-depth, teaching you how to harness the full potential of your editing software.
So, instead of walking away from photography, channel your energy into mastering post-processing techniques. You may find that by improving your editing skills, you’ll view your past and future work with new enthusiasm.
15. Take a photography course
Sometimes, the best way to jumpstart your creativity is by learning something new. And what better way to do that than by enrolling in a photography course?
Structured learning helps you master new skills quickly, whether you’re a beginner seeking foundational knowledge or a seasoned pro craving advanced techniques. And the options are plentiful; there are literally thousands of online courses that let you learn at your own pace, right from the comfort of your home.
(Of course, if you prefer a hands-on experience, you can also explore workshops or even take classes at your local community college.)
Picking the right course depends on your needs. Are you into wildlife photography? There’s a course for that. Portraits more your style? Plenty of options there, too. You’ll find specialized courses covering topics like studio lighting, macro photography, post-processing, bird photography, and so much more. The world of photography education is incredibly vast and really does offer something for everyone.
At the end of the day, a new skill can push you to see – and photograph – the world in new ways. So don’t hesitate. Dive into a course and watch how quickly you regain that photographic inspiration!
Ways to find photography inspiration: final words
If you’re feeling uninspired, dejected, or just plain burnt out, I hope this article has been helpful. With a few simple techniques and a conscious effort to change your mindset, you can come back more inspired and more motivated than ever, ready to explore all these wonderful facets of an art form that has so many ardent fans all over the world!
So pick one or more of the methods for inspiration I’ve shared. Then really commit to it. If you do a self-challenge, give it your all. If you take on a project, block out time to complete it. And if you take a break from photography and do something else creative, put real effort into that, too!
Now over to you:
How do you plan to feel motivated again? Do you have any techniques for gaining inspiration that I didn’t cover in this article? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: This article was updated in October 2023 by dPS’s Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.